Excerpt from an unwritten memoir. Part 3
I took a drive through my old town, past the shabby, lifeless community centre and down to the hole in the fence that backed onto farmer’s fields and the woods where we threw sticks high and hard to knock down horse-chestnuts from trees that were taller than the buildings we lived in. The hole in the fence was no longer there; it, along with the rest of the old wooden boundary marker, had been replaced by a shiny new metal structure that seemed taller than was necessary. Its tops were far spikier than any fence I had ever climbed. In any case, the drop to the other side looked like it would be less than sympathetic to my ageing knees.
I got out and walked. Past the village green which, wide as Wembley in my memories, was now the size of suburban front lawn. Back then that pitch could accommodate twenty or more bodies, chasing a ball en-masse, end to end all summer long. New houses form new streets where the old newsagent and social club once stood, and though many of the lawns that once bore the fruits of retired gardeners have been paved over and occupied by parked cars, the streets are filled to bursting with each home’s second vehicle. The ones that move zoom through implying that anywhere on earth is better than this street where I spent half my life. A lifetime ago. The walk to the shop that took forever, as neighbour on neighbour stopped to say hello and ask about my boy’s life, today took me four minutes. Nobody wants to know what a thirty nine year old man has been up to all morning. How time moved so much slower when all the world’s time was mine.
I took the track that bisected the field diagonally from the old garages to the stile where the railway line crosses the Great North Road. It was a weekday and I anticipated introducing myself at the reception of the old First School. A former pupil turned artist, working on a project around lost youth, half-remembered events and faces, teachers and places that meld into a sort of mood-board of memories, none of whose reliability can be taken for granted. I should expect I’d be given a tour.
The foundations of one’s nascent personage gradually crumble over time so that the ground around us recedes and we are left to support ourselves. Instead of building towards the person we were destined to become, or were told we were, we begin at some indistinct time to build on former versions of ourselves, and in that sense we grow.
I anticipated towering over tiny tables and chairs; little sinks with soaps. I imagined reading names above cloakroom pegs from which coats and football boots, muddied, hung. I could see myself almost ducking as I entered rooms into which I had spilled so much of my formative emotions; onto which I had since, perhaps, projected so much fantasy that I simply had to see them again; had to hear the echo in the hall of distant school children shouting ‘seconds please, Miss!’ before I could move on from a youth that was not all that I remembered it to be.
The school was gone. Only its perimeter remained: a construction of stone and metal that alone held so many memories. Lining up for lunch time, multipl footballs over the wall and into the burn below, hiding from the big boys after teasing them into a chase. The gateway remained, but not the gate. Although it was now accessible from three sides, I yet found myself entering through it before looking out over my childhood. Could it all have happened on such a tiny patch of land? My mind struggled to accommodate the knowledge of my former school being bound by this narrow perimeter. My childhood, too, now appeared postage stamp small in relation to later events. I will never again walk those corridors, on whose creaking boards my memories will never rest. Childhood has nowhere to go, but go it does, and its memory fades, just as the faintest of lines in the grass before me indicate the perimeter walls of my old First School. The rooms, so small, will eventually be overgrown and over-built as new buildings rise in their places. Like childhood itself, my First School was gone before I had the chance to take it in, a collage of distant memories, since when too much time has passed for me to revisit in confidence. Nobody told me it would be demolished, nobody gave me the opportunity to take a souvenir photograph, or brick. Nobody asked my permission to let go. My first school is gone, and with it my childhood. I could never properly say goodbye to either.